Orlando Tennis Centre will anchor new city park

Orlando native Roger Pharr plays tennis about four days a week at the busy and popular Orlando Tennis Centre downtown, a complex with a storied history. Pharr is 87 years old.

A 20-time OTC champion in doubles or singles between 1956 and 1979, Pharr is “the most respected tennis player in Orlando,” said Thomas Sweitzer, OTC’s manager.

Tennis champion Roger Pharr at the Orlando Tennis Centre in the 60’s.

Pharr has been playing tennis at OTC, located at Livingston Street and Parramore Avenue, since 1945. “The first time I tried to hit the ball when I was a beginner, I totally missed it. I don’t miss too many these days. But I don’t play the young men anymore,” he said. “I can’t see as well, and I don’t move as fast. I love the game. The tennis center means quite a bit to me. Everyone is looking forward to the move to the new park. It will be a very nice place to play.”

Approximately 24,000 tennis enthusiasts play at OTC each year. Pharr and his friends await the opening of a new tennis complex expected in 2020. It will be a centerpiece of the regional park planned for College Park’s west side.

On February 12, 2018, Dr. Phillips Charities officially donated 104 acres of its recently purchased 118-acre parcel to the city for the park at Princeton Street and John Young Parkway. The park will also include walking and biking trails, a lake, and green spaces.

Future plans call for a pavilion and an urban farm at the yet-to-be-named park. Dr. Phillips is retaining the remainder of the parcel for development associated with The Packing District, a multi-use development encompassing the nearby Princeton Street and Orange Blossom Trail intersection.

Moving OTC is necessary to make way for the Creative Village and UCF’s new downtown campus now under construction. The move means the aging OTC will be revitalized with the newest tennis court technology and a new clubhouse.

The location at the new park was possible through a welcomed public-private partnership between the city and Dr. Phillips according to Lisa Early, director of the Families, Parks and Recreation Department at the City of Orlando. OTC will have a brand-new complex not far from its historic site, a factor important to many longtime players, she said.

The current center opened in 1932 — making it Orlando’s oldest public recreation facility — with four original clay courts on what was then the Orlando Fairgrounds property. Over the years, it expanded to 16 courts — 11 clay and 5 hard-surface — with an innovative underground watering system to reduce water consumption, saving 60 percent of the typical usage needed for clay tennis courts.

Photo by Holly Hatcher
Thomas Sweitzer, manager of Orlando Tennis Centre, speaks with a city official as construction looms overhead.

The Centre has been innovative from the start, Sweitzer said, with lights being added in the ’50s for night play and upper-deck spectator seats on the courts, both very new in the tennis world.

OTC has hosted tournaments and tennis exhibitions of national prominence, featuring world-class players like Bobby Riggs, Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, and many others in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Framed collage photos of famous tennis professionals who have played at OTC cover the clubhouse walls, providing a pictorial history of tennis in Orlando.

“This is a beloved facility, but to have it upgraded and updated is exciting,” Early said. While playing at the old site has become challenging with the surrounding construction creating noise and dust and making the ground shake, Sweitzer said the new facility is the buzz of the tennis community. Two of the current courts now have buildings for UCF student housing on them, but the remaining 14 courts are expected to stay open until the new facility is ready. They will then become the site of new multi-family housing, according to the City’s plans.

Sweitzer and his staff oversee about 12 leagues that utilize the courts and up to six tennis tournaments every year. A national Women’s Open pro circuit event of the United States Tennis Association was held four times at OTC in recent years. USTA opened its massive international headquarters and courts complex in Lake Nona a year ago and is assisting in the design of OTC’s new complex, according to Early.

With a passion for expanding free and youth tennis initiatives, Sweitzer works to “grow tennis and revitalize tennis in the city,” he said. A U.S. Professional Tennis Association Master Pro, National Pro of the Year in 2008, and highly decorated veteran of the game, Sweitzer came to OTC in 2012 and is thrilled that Orlando is poised to become a major tennis destination.

In 2013, OTC started offering tennis at the city’s community centers and now exposes youth at 15 centers to the game each summer. Every spring and fall, free tennis lessons are offered for beginners. OTC offers memberships at resident and nonresident rates and is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.

District 3 City Commissioner Robert Stuart said, “While the complete build-out of The Packing District will take several years, I was excited to meet with our Parks staff about the first project to begin, which is the City’s new Orlando Tennis Centre. The City of Orlando has contracted with Magley Design to undertake the planning and design of the project.”

Construction of the tennis complex and other city facilities included in The Packing District nearby brings contracting opportunities for local businesses. Companies interested in bid opportunities with the City of Orlando can register online at cityoforlando.net/procurement/ to receive email notifications of active solicitations, Stuart said.

Preliminary designs and a general idea of the courts, clubhouse, and parking facility plan could be ready in a month, according to Early. Then a community process is planned to gain input from key stakeholders, members, and neighbors.

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